The All-Star break gives us a chance to see how teams have fared thus far and project what will happen the rest of the season. One of the big influences, if not the biggest, year in and year out, is injuries, and 2014 is no different. Much of the first three months of the season was spent talking about the number of Tommy John surgeries (including revision or second surgeries to the ulnar collateral ligament of the elbow) befalling major league pitchers this year. When pitchers’ elbows weren’t the hot injury topic, baserunners’ thumbs were. Perhaps the second most common surgery of the first half of the season also involved an ulnar collateral ligament, specifically the one found in the thumb, often injured by baserunners getting it caught on the bag while sliding. Looking ahead to after the All-Star break, teams who have been without some of their key players are hopeful of getting them back, at least for a portion of the season. But are those hopes realistic? To try to answer that question, we take a closer look at 10 of the more interesting injury scenarios for the second half.
Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, Toronto Blue Jays (right quad strain): Encarnacion went on the disabled list the week before the All-Star break with a strain of the large muscle on the front of his thigh, suffered while trying to beat out a double-play ball. The reach for the bag with his left leg forced the right one into a hard stretch. That was enough for Encarnacion to reportedly feel a “pop,” a sign that some soft tissue fibers, perhaps at the junction of the muscle and tendon, had been pulled beyond their physical limits. The projected recovery time frame of two to four weeks issued by the team reflects the uncertainty when dealing with muscle strains of this nature; the severity is more than a minor seven- to 10-day issue, but it isn’t enough to threaten an athlete’s entire season. Individual recovery rates vary widely and early resolution of pain and inflammation are often strong indicators of how the healing will progress. The most important (but perhaps the most difficult) judgment is not returning to play too soon, when overextending a near-healthy muscle can risk pushing a player’s recovery beyond the original outer projection. Even if he progresses well, it seems Encarnacion is likely to miss more on the order of three to four weeks, as opposed to the minimum 15 days.
Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati Reds (left distal quad strain): Just before the All-Star break, Votto went on the DL for a second time with a quad strain, but it was painfully clear he had never returned to his pre-injury form. In the month between his DL visits, Votto was just not the Votto people are accustomed to seeing, batting just .250 with no home runs. Reds management had indicated Votto might be contending with a leg that is less than 100 percent healthy for the remainder of the season, but no one likely expected it to be this problematic. Clearly in discomfort at times while at the plate and without the support of his back leg to help drive his swing, Votto has simply not been effective.
Reds manager Bryan Price didn’t sound entirely optimistic when he offered his assessment of Votto's status going forward. “Our plan of attack will be to do everything we can to get him back to play over the course of the year," Price said. "We don't have a timetable on how long that will be, but the goal is to get him back and able to help us before the year is out.” In other words, the Reds are still looking to get a functional Votto back, not necessarily a completely healthy one. Votto went through a difficult recovery following meniscus surgery on the same knee two years ago. While it is unclear whether there are joint changes that are specifically contributing to his challenges with this year’s quad strain, the cumulative injuries in the area don’t help the overall picture. The takeaway at this stage is that even if the Reds are able to work Votto back to the playing field this season, their own assessment of the situation hints at him not returning to full strength before the year is out.
Evan Gattis, C, Atlanta Braves (thoracic disk): Disk problems of all types are problematic, but those in the middle of the spine are particularly worrisome. They are often slow to resolve, and the attachment of the ribs to the thoracic vertebrae and the vital organs in the vicinity makes surgery a risky proposition. The Braves hope that the epidural injection Gattis received at the start of July is all that’s necessary to get him over the hump. So far, the plan appears to be showing signs of working.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gattis has begun some baseball activities, including taking light batting practice. Given the torque through the trunk during a swing, the fact he was able to do so successfully is a good sign that the acute pain has settled down. The next test will be to ramp toward rehab games, presuming no setbacks from the batting practice. While there remains no formal timetable, it’s clear Gattis won’t be ready to come off the DL when first eligible immediately after the All-Star break. It remains to be seen whether he continues on this trajectory when he puts in consecutive days of swinging the bat hard and making defensive throws from behind the plate, another skill which forces rotation through the spine. Knowing how slow these problems can be to improve, his progress thus far is encouraging but the concern of a subsequent flare-up will linger.
Brandon Phillips, 2B, Cincinnati Reds (left thumb; UCL surgery): Even guys who rarely visit the DL seem to be finding their way onto it this year. Take Phillips, for instance. He has managed to avoid it for the past five seasons but now finds himself there as he recovers from thumb surgery. Thumbs have been perhaps the most significant “digit” injury this baseball season in terms of keeping top-level talent off the field. Consider that Los Angeles Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton, Washington Nationals teammates Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman all missed more than a month in the first half of the season due to thumb injuries. Now Phillips and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina will have the second half of their seasons compromised due to their respective thumb injuries. The good news for Phillips is that the recovery path post-surgery is fairly well established, and the timeline is generally reliable with a low rate of re-injury. Even though the Reds expect to be without his services for about six weeks, they can feel confident about his status going forward.
Yadier Molina, C, St. Louis Cardinals (right thumb; UCL surgery): Like his thumb injury counterpart, Brandon Phillips, Molina does not spend much time on the DL. In fact, prior to last year’s minimum-length DL stay for his right knee, Molina had not been a visitor since 2007 when he missed a month due to a fractured wrist. Now Molina will miss up to three times that length of time following surgery to repair his injured thumb. As noted above, several major league players have missed extensive time due to similar thumb injuries and subsequent surgery. The timetable offered by the Cardinals for Molina’s recovery is a bit lengthier than the others we have seen for such injuries this year. Whether his injury is more complex or the team is allowing for the increased demands placed on his throwing hand as a catcher (or a little of both), it does not appear he will return before September. Even then, although his grip may not be compromised significantly, the power of his swing may take a little longer to return after so much time away.
Michael Cuddyer, OF, Colorado Rockies (fractured left shoulder): Cuddyer’s injury was somewhat unusual to begin with; a fracture of the glenoid or “socket” of his left shoulder sustained during a diving defensive play in June. At the time of the injury, it appeared his soonest possible return to action would be in late July or early August. Now the hope is that Cuddyer’s arm has healed enough to allow him to return before the season ends. According to the Rockies’ official website, Cuddyer is slated for a follow-up MRI in the third week of July to evaluate whether the fracture has healed to the point where he can progress his rehab activity out of the sling. If yes, then a return within the following month might be possible. If not, well, then given the amount of time it would take to strengthen his shoulder for a return to baseball after yet more time in a sling, the outlook for this season would be uncertain at best. The location of the fracture makes it impossible to immobilize the site completely, so the next best thing is to minimize the movement by placing the athlete in a sling. The trade-off comes in the form of strength loss of the surrounding musculature while the bone attempts to repair itself, an outcome not guaranteed to take place within six weeks, given the location. Cuddyer’s status at this point is wait and see, literally, as the visual image on his upcoming MRI will indicate whether or not he is likely to take the field again this year.
Michael Wacha, SP, St. Louis Cardinals (stress reaction in right scapula): Wacha’s injury is so unusual in baseball, there is only one other clearly documented case in recent years. Brandon McCarthy, now with the New York Yankees, has experienced recurring stress fractures in the scapula (shoulder blade) of his throwing arm, dating back at least seven years. The good news? McCarthy has recovered and returned to throw each time the injury has cropped up, and Wacha should be expected to do the same. In fact in Wacha’s case, the injury was reported to be a stress reaction, a precursor to a stress fracture but a bone injury nonetheless. Ideally, beyond managing the pain and allowing the fracture to heal, one could uncover the root problem and target that to prevent recurrence. The rarity of the injury, however, makes that tough to do. Most bony stress injuries are to weight-bearing bones (like leg, foot) or bony elements subject to excessive torsion (such as projections on certain vertebrae), but if the right amount of tensile force is imparted by muscular or musculo-tendinous attachments to bone, the bone can weaken and show signs of stress. Wacha should recover fully, although it could take in excess of a month. The big question then will be whether this was a one-time incident or whether it signals a potentially recurring problem for the young pitcher.
Gerrit Cole, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates (right lat strain): When one of your starting pitchers goes on the DL in early June due to shoulder fatigue, then develops a minor problem a month later with the latissimus muscle on the same side, backing him off his throwing schedule, at least briefly, is the sensible move. The Pirates did exactly that, making the decision to move Cole to the DL for the second time in a month, keeping an eye on his delivery and his dosage while he recovers from this second incident.
Just a week after being placed on the DL, Cole was throwing a side session, indicating the relatively low severity of this latest soft tissue injury. Still, everything the team is doing seems to indicate caution on their part. After all, the larger lat muscle contributes to the stability of the entire upper kinetic chain (think: shoulder blade, shoulder, elbow, wrist and hand) via the extremity’s anchor to the body and can force increased reliance on the small, coordinating muscles of the shoulder (think: rotator cuff) when it fatigues. An injury to the lat can therefore influence the shoulder during throwing, both directly and indirectly. This DL stint may be as much about the Pirates working with their young pitcher to increase his arm endurance in a protected way so as to ward off a truly major problem as anything else. It still translates to more lost time for him but hopefully that remains shorter than the alternative.
Cliff Lee, SP, Philadelphia Phillies (left flexor tendon strain): One of Lee’s characteristics over time has been his durability; before this year, he had never made a trip to the DL for an injury to his throwing arm. It takes only one episode, though, to derail a season and for Lee thus far, 2014 has been nonexistent. The key words though are “thus far,” as it appears Lee is poised to return to the Phillies' starting rotation in late July, presuming no setbacks in the interim. The team has been taking their time with the veteran, not rushing him to return as he steadily moved through a rehabilitation program, despite not being completely free of soreness or stiffness in his throwing elbow. Apparently his function was convincing enough (and his lingering symptoms minor enough) that Lee was permitted to resume throwing and has made it to the point of rehab starts without a setback, although his outings have been less than stellar.
The Phillies may be more interested in showcasing Lee’s return to health to other potential suitors than anything else, given their current status in the standings. From a global health perspective, it would be nice to see Lee post a strong second half of the 2014 season with no arm setbacks, something he has a decent chance of doing based on how his last month of work has gone. Flexor tendon injuries (injuries to the attachment of the muscle group on the inner aspect of the forearm which controls grip and rotation) can precede ligament injuries but an uneventful July to September -- maybe even October -- would offer some peace of mind that Lee’s decline is not imminent, despite the mileage he has accrued in his career.
Masahiro Tanaka, SP, New York Yankees (right UCL partial tear): All eyes will certainly be on Tanaka in the next couple of weeks to see whether he is able to begin -- and ultimately progress through -- a throwing program that would allow him to return to the mound this season. Despite being placed on the DL in July with a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his right elbow, Tanaka hopes to be able to pick up where he left off ... in mid-June. The injury to his throwing elbow may have been responsible, at least in part, for his drop in performance immediately preceding his DL exit, particularly the 10-percentage-point decline in his strikeout rate (from 29 percent through mid-June to 19 percent in his last four starts, according to ESPN’s Stats & Info).
Tanaka had been a bright spot in the Yankees’ rotation, leading the team in wins and inspiring confidence when he took the mound. He quickly proved the value of his offseason acquisition by the team, especially given their injuries to other starters: CC Sabathia, whose degenerative knee is likely to keep him out the remainder of the year; Ivan Nova, who is in the thick of rehabbing his own (April) Tommy John surgery; and Michael Pineda, who continues in his recovery from a teres major strain and will not return before August, at best. With the news of Tanaka’s injury, however, the question becomes how much his perceived value takes a hit. The jury remains out for now as everyone waits to see whether his prescribed trial of rest and rehab following a platelet-rich-plasma injection will succeed.
There are indeed cases where partial tears of the UCL, the ligament that stabilizes the medial elbow, do not require surgery, at least not immediately, but they are not well-documented and appear to be relatively rare at the major league level. A study published in 2013 in the American Journal of Sports Medicine examined the return-to-play status of 34 athletes with partial tears of the UCL who had undergone PRP injections and found an 88 percent success rate. It should be noted, however, that only two of the athletes in that study were professional baseball pitchers. Still, given the fact that return to prior level of performance following Tommy John surgery is not guaranteed and, at the very least, requires an extensive recovery process that typically exceeds one year, the decision to attempt conservative treatment first makes sense for Tanaka and the Yankees. The bottom line is this: By late August we should have a good idea as to whether Tanaka will be poised for a 2014 return or whether we’ll have to wait until 2016 to see him back in major league competition.